Falling out with James Wong Howe

A few days ago, I connected with the always-busy George Spiro Dibie, ASC. Between educational events involving students from around the country and around the world, he shared some memories of his early days, when he served as gaffer to James Wong Howe, ASC.

In the late 1960s, Howe took an interest in Dibie-Dash Productions, the company George co-founded to produce, direct, shoot and edit educational films for minorities. George, who had also worked for ASC legends Harry Stradling, Howard Schwartz and Philip Lathrop, among others, became Howe’s protégé, a relationship that lasted for several years, until a disagreement ended it.

I asked George for the whole story.

“Jimmy was absolutely the best in dealing with source lighting,” George told me. “He created his own sources sometimes, but they looked like the real thing. He did not believe in changing lenses. He often shot with a 40mm, and when he moved in, he didn’t want the background to jump out at you.

“Jimmy and I did things together all the time. We went to lunch together and saw dailies together. Jimmy smoked green Windsor cigars, ordered from Paramount. But on The Molly Maguires, Paramount made the prop guy pay for those cigars because they didn’t fit the period!

“Jimmy loved pistachios, and he would eat them all day, throwing the shells on the floor. Once, I started to clean them up, and Jimmy said, ‘No, no! Leave them there. I’m creating a job for a craft-service guy.’”

Early on in their working relationship, George was the gaffer on This Property Is Condemned, which starred Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. The director was Sydney Pollack.

“Every time Jimmy did something, he would tell me why he did it,” George recalled. “One day, we had an apartment scene, and the time changed from day to night to day. We had a 10K on a Molevator for the sun. Jimmy told me to put a quad inside an armoire, with one globe lit. I asked him the famous question: ‘What’s the source motivating this light inside the armoire?’ Boy, did I learn a lesson! ‘It’s my source!’ said Jimmy. ‘Don’t ever question my source!’ If you look at the scene, you’ll understand how great he was.”

For The Molly Maguires, a Paramount picture directed by Martin Ritt, Howe and Dibie spent a grueling five months in northeastern Pennsylvania. The movie starred Sean Connery, Richard Harris, Anthony Zerbe and Samantha Eggar, and it depicted labor strife in coalmines during the 19th century.

“We worked very hard,” George recalled. “We had many nights and lots of rain. It was coal country, and everything was black, black, black. Jimmy was very set on using only Colortran Nine-lights, but you could only stretch them 15 or 20 feet. We had to redo three days of shooting. We were trying to light up a whole town. The mine breakers needed more punch for an exposure, and film stock was less sensitive in those days. Finally, I ordered 10Ks, which they shipped, and we needed more Arcs, but Jimmy never forgave me.

“In the planning, Jimmy had insisted on not bringing the normal equipment. One night during the shoot, Jimmy said to one of my electricians, ‘Give me a 2K fill.’ I said, ‘Jimmy, we don’t have soft lights.’ He asked why not, and I said in a very kind voice, ‘Do you remember? We discussed it at Paramount before we came. You said you didn’t want that stuff.’ There were 40 or 50 people listening to us, including Marty and the actors. Jimmy was very angry. He gave me the worst look, told me off, and said he wanted me off the set. Richard Harris put his arm around me and said, ‘Stay put.’ Marty Ritt said, ‘This is a father-son problem. Everybody stay out of it.’”

For the final few weeks of the shoot, George traded places with the gaffer on the second unit.

Four decades later, George recalls his mentor fondly. “Away from the set, Jimmy was the best, absolutely the best. I learned so much from him, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

 

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